Wednesday, September 26, 2018

ALMOST FAMOUS Is Almost A Musical

It was one of my favorite films of 2000.  A number of reputable film critics put it on their lists of favorites of that year too.  ALMOST FAMOUS brought Cameron Crowe an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  I still feel that he should have received more than that one Oscar nomination.  ALMOST FAMOUS should have been an Oscar nominee for Best Picture and he should have been a nominee for Best Director.  I love that movie so much.  First of all, it accurately and lovingly reflects the world of rock music as it was when I landed my first professional broadcast job after I graduated from college.  I worked as a newsreader on WFQM Radio, an FM rock radio station in Milwaukee.  This was when we young people still listened to rock radio, had record players, hung out at record stores and could get a good ticket to a rock concert for under $20.00.  Cameron Crowe was a young, smart and passionate writer for Rolling Stone magazine, a publication that the DJs at WQFM considered to be as important as the Bible.  Crowe's screenplay is a valentine to those days and to the world of rock music before it became a corporate product, if you will.
I first saw ALMOST FAMOUS at a preview screening in a packed New York City theater.  The audience was so vibrantly connected to it. Being in that audience was a thrill and a reminder that seeing a movie is often best when enjoyed on a big screen with an audience that is emotionally invested and giving the film its full attention. When seeing a movie is a community experience like that, it's rich.  You could feel the audience fall in love with the "Tiny Dancer" bus scene, one of the highlights of the film.  The applause and cheers the end from that New York City audience made me sure the film company had something very special in its possession.
Frances McDormand played the mother of the teen journalist. Marvelous. She hit a home-run in her every scene as the widowed school teacher mother in Southern California who states that "Adolescence is a marketing tool."  She is a force.  She's forthright, fearless and, above all, loving.  I nearly gasped when first I saw her.  I had a high school teacher exactly like that.  Mrs. Ogren taught History.  She was a "civilian" teacher at our all boys Catholic high school in Watts.  She was a fascinating character who dressed just like Frances McDormand did in ALMOST FAMOUS.  Remember the funny confrontation the schoolteacher mother had with her outspoken teen daughter about Simon & Garfunkel?  My divorced mother and my sister had the same argument about the same Simon & Garfunkel album the schoolteacher mom holds up.  Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson were both in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race.  Has Kate Hudson had another role as good, a role that brought out her radiance the way the Penny Lane role did in ALMOST FAMOUS? Has she?
I did a one-hour interview of Cameron Crowe before a live audience before ALMOST FAMOUS opened nationwide.  We did that in New York City which is why I attended the preview.  By the way, I paid to see the movie at least three times again after it opened.  That's how much I loved it.

I once read an interview of the famed writer/director Billy Wilder. He said that if a screenwriter wrote one line that audiences could remember and quote through the years, then the writer had done the job well.  He then went on the make his point with high praise for CASABLANCA.  Needless to say, Billy Wilder was also a master at that job.  Wilder was a hero and mentor to Cameron Crowe.

ALMOST FAMOUS is not only a valentine to a golden age of rock music and its fans, it's also a valentine to Billy Wilder's art -- especially his classic, THE APARTMENT.  In Crowe's trailer before the interview, we met and I went fan-boy on him with my affection for his film.  I also remarked, "Penny Lane has Fran Kubelik quality about her."  Fran Kubelik is the character Shirley MacLaine played in THE APARTMENT. A big smile broke across Cameron's face and he replied, "That's what I was going for."
If you watch ALMOST FAMOUS again, notice that it does have a strong similarity to Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT.  Two guys want the same girl.  Heartbreak triggers her to take a handful of pills.  One of those guys must learn to become "a mensch."  Shirley MacLaine stars with Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray in THE APARTMENT.

Cameron Crowe wrote a book about his conversations with Billy Wilder.  In our on-camera conversation, Cameron told that the late, legendary Hollywood filmmaker, then in his 90s, saw ALMOST FAMOUS.
I'd love to interview Crowe again.  I read in entertainment news reports that he is now writing the book for a stage musical version of his 2000 Oscar-winning movie.  There's no word on casting yet, but reports project that the stage musical version will be Broadway-bound.

"It's all happening!"  Break a leg, Cameron Crowe.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


He turned 92 last week and he's done the show for over 20 informative and entertaining years.  James Lipton, thank you for bringing us INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO since 1994.  For all of us who are passionate in our love and respect for the performance arts, especially in film and TV, Lipton's show was a rich oasis in what was becoming a cultural desert of entertainment reporters making the first and most important question "Who did your dress?" followed by other questions of little or no homework. Lipton understood and respected the actor's craft.  He was a definite fan. He did his homework. James Lipton looked like a true academic, a university professor with a certain demeanor and cadence of speech that could be imitated by his students having a few beers at a local campus pub.  In fact, he was imitated by comedian Will Ferrell on TV.  Lipton has a delightful sense of humor about himself.  His award-winning show became part of our pop culture viewing habits.
One thing that disappointed me about Bravo, the channel that's aired INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO, was that promotion of the show decreased the more Andy Cohen's Real Housewives franchise gained in popularity.  Now Bravo seems pretty much "All Andy, All the Time" with flashy, gossipy shows that are extensions of his sharply marketed Gay White Male fabulousness.  But, let's face it, they don't have the substance of INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO.  The actor interview show is relocating over to the Ovation channel -- and James Lipton is retiring.  I loved watching him and it was obvious that the stars he interviewed loved being with him.
INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO will continue with a rotating group of hosts.  If those hosts have yet to be chosen, I am throwing my hat in the ring for consideration.  That's the kind of work I'd love to do and have done. I hope Ovation embraces diversity and inclusion.

Here are samples of my interview, research and writing skills. (None of the phone numbers you'll see are still in effect. You can contact me on Twitter @ BobbyRiversTV or BobbyRiversTV on Facebook.

Michael Shannon now has two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations to his credit. I interviewed him about MIDNIGHT SPECIAL  In that 2016 sci-fi drama, he played the divorced father on the run with his little boy who has a supernatural spiritual gift that dark forces want to catch and control.

Here's a clip reel of some of my other interviews, mostly from my post-VH1 years.

Here's a promo reel for my VH1 talk show. It was a prime time Monday through Friday show called WATCH BOBBY RIVERS.

Mel Gibson was also a guest on my VH1 talk show. He told me about a popular role he rejected.

VH1 flew me to London for a special one-hour chat with Paul McCartney. He told me about a famous role that he politely declined.

In 2000, I was the entertainment editor on an ABC News/Lifetime TV joint production called LIFETIME LIVE. Working with Dana Reeve will always be one of the great joys of my career.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Hollywood Needs Latino Agents

He was one of the most powerful and one of the most feared men in Hollywood.  Not bad, I guess, for a guy who went to high school in Van Nuys, California back in the early 60s.  (I think Robert Redford attended high school in Van Nuys too.  In the 50s.  I heard Redford recently on CBS TV say that he grew up in a tough neighborhood.  The blackness in me said, "Bitch! You grew up in Santa Monica in the 1950s.  I grew up in South Central L.A. in the 60s and went to high school in Watts.  You know what black folks in Watts called a weekend in Santa Monica?  A vacation." But I digress.)  The once powerful and feared super-agent, Michael Ovitz, has been on TV talking about his newly-published memoir.  Ovitz co-founded Creative Artists Agency (CAA).
The book reliving his ruthless Hollywood reign of the 1980s and 90s is titled WHO IS MICHAEL OVITZ?  He's 71 now and looks good.  I saw him on two CBS interviews and he came off as forthright, polite and a bit contrite.  He started in an agency's mailroom then worked his way up to become a top agent. Today, that's kind of a trope for the veteran male agent.
Something about the extraordinary roster of talents that he represented made me think of the current "Oscars So White" diversity/inclusion issues that have been red hot in Hollywood the last three years and the recent annual list in The Hollywood Reporter of the "100 Most Powerful People in Entertainment."

Only two were Latino:  Oscar winning Mexican director Guillermo del Toro and New York Puerto Rican golden boy, Broadway's Lin-Manuel Miranda.  In an online article I read on Twitter from @  Remezcla, Kristen Lopez reported that the two Latino talents were listed in the bottom 20.  Three Asians made the list. Fifteen African Americans made the list.  If you're on Twitter, find Remezcla and look for the item "The lack of Latinos on the list is a result of a much larger problem."

Kristen Lopez, I feel like I've grown up watching that problem and wondering why it still exists.  I'm very proud to say that Mexicans were part of my everyday life growing up in South Central L.A.  They were our next door neighbors, my classmates, teachers, priests, our local merchants, family friends and my parents co-workers who visited our houses...they were in my community.  A Mexican teacher at school realized I was attracted to the fine arts.  With my parent's permission, he took me to see Ballet Folklorico downtown at our Music Center.  I loved it! In high school, we all knew that Ricky Perez was a great friend to have.  Not only was he one of the smartest guys in the class, he was one of the most down to earth.  Teachers and students dug Ricky Perez.  And he'd help a guy out in a heartbeat.  We were altar boys together.  Ricky Perez had your back in the classroom, on the altar and on the playground.

So when I watched TV shows, why wasn't I seeing representations of our next door neighbors, guys like Ricky Perez, women like our Auntie Jean -- Jean Garcia, mom's longtime best friend and fellow registered nurse -- and the teacher who introduced me to Ballet Folklorico?  Why were we just seeing CHICO AND THE MAN starring the late and terrifically talented Freddie Prinze?  Nowadays I say. "Why the hell isn't Michael Peña a star yet?  He's excellent at drama and comedy and he has work in 5 Best Picture Oscar nominees to his credit -- MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CRASH, BABEL, AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE MARTIAN.
Michael Peña can even be good in a dog of a comedy like 2017's CHIPS.
Another thing -- my parents embraced the arts. Mom took us to see a lot of children's theater.  There were annual classic plays performed in our high school, which was a Catholic school with a predominantly black and Chicano student body.  Mexican actors were in productions at our Music Center and in other entertainment venues in L.A.  In short, there never has been a shortage of Mexican talent in Southern California.  Not then.  Not now.  The same goes for Latino talent I love in New York City where I lived and worked for 20 years.

But only two Latino talents are on that list of the 100 Most Powerful for 2018.

Michael Ovitz was the super-agent for Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Tom Hanks, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas, David Letterman … and Michael Jackson.  That's a partial list.  Also, it's not a very racially diverse list. One black superstar.

I had my first meeting with an agent at a powerhouse agency in 1990 in New York City.  The last time I met with an agent at a top agency was in New York City in 2008.  In between those years, I have several meetings with agents in Manhattan and a couple in LA.  In all that time, I saw only one black agent -- and she worked at the first agency I met with in 1990.

At all those agencies, the people who knew my work when I showed up were the black and Latino employees working the reception desk and the mailroom. The white agents usually had not bothered to read my resumé or watch my demo reel before our scheduled meetings. They knew clueless to my credits.

After VH1, I had to hustle up my own TV host/performer work because the white broadcast agents turned me down.  I called in to a KNX live radio show a couple of years ago that had a special devoted to "Hollywood So White" and the need for diversity going from onscreen opportunities to the Academy's minimal minority membership.  I mentioned that I've met with several agents at agencies over quite a few years and I saw only one black agent.  All the rest were white.  I asked if having more racial diversity in the agencies would help minority actors.

A rep from a Hispanic Actors Organization loved my question.  He said that most L.A. agents are white and stay within their comfort zone.  They won't drive to areas outside of Beverly Hills and Brentwood to see good local Mexican talent in places like Long Beach or Burbank.  They're more likely to sign someone they saw while vacationing in Madrid.

I did sign with a few agents for TV work but I noticed that I got myself more work than they did.  They would submit me only if a request for "African American talent" came in.  The work I got myself on VH1, on Lifetime TV and on Food Network... the agents would not have submitted me for those auditions because "African American" was not specifically requested.  They didn't think outside the racial box.

With all the current talk about the need for diversity and inclusion -- which thankfully now includes the major need for people of color as film reviewers and correspondents -- there should be a report on how racially diverse the roster of representatives in top agencies are.  Just a thought.  You can go to my previous blog post (about HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE), scroll down and see the demo reel from my VH1 talk show that stymied white agents.  I do believe that my TV career could have benefitted greatly from black/Latino agents pushing for me -- if any had been employed back then.  White agents have bluntly said to me, "I just wouldn't know what to do with you."  I doubt Tom Bergeron or Rosie O'Donnell ever heard an agent say, "Gee...we just don't get a lot of requests for Caucasian talent."

Are there black, Latino, Asian agents in Hollywood and New York City now?  Did a person of color ever do like a Michael Ovitz -- start off working in the mailroom then escalate to becoming an agent?  Just wondering.

In 2008, I met with an agent in New York City.  This is hand-on-a-Bible true:  I sent her my resumé and this demo reel one week before our scheduled meeting.  She opened our meeting with "Have you ever done any on-camera TV work?"  And  there you have it.

Sunday, September 23, 2018


A major Hollywood studio should have offered actor/director Robert Townsend a 3-picture deal after the release and reviews of his hilarious, accurate and warm-hearted satire of the limited work for black actors in 1987's HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.  He used his credit cards and other guerrilla movie-making methods in order to get his indie comedy made.  Townsend stars in, co-wrote and directed HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.  I was lucky enough to have him as a guest on my VH1 talk show when the movie opened.  He lampooned the constant humiliations black actors endure when trying to get work and all that's available to them are stereotypical roles that some folks in the industry want played in stereotypical ways. It is time to re-appreciate Robert Townsend's HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.  Especially now in this age of "Oscars So White" and calls for more diversity and more inclusion -- in the categories of actors and film critics alike.  HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE airs on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Tuesday, September 25th.  His comedy represents some color barriers we black performers had to break through in order to keep our dreams from dying on the vine.  The Hollywood and Vine.
Robert Townsend was in the fine cast of Norman Jewison's A SOLDIER'S STORY.  The screenplay was adapted by Charles Fuller, the African American talent who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing the play.  However, Jewison, whose IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967 along with Rod Steiger winning for Best Actor, was stunned when Hollywood would not give him money to produce his new film.  Why?  He was told that "black stories don't sell."  That was code for "We don't support films with a predominantly black cast that do not have a white actor as the hero."  Jewison got his film made, with a smaller budget than some of his films after IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT such as THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.  He got A SOLDIER'S STORY made and it was nominated for Best Picture of 1984.

The Hollywood films and the TV practices that Townsend poked in 1987 still need poking.  Ironically, this includes a channel like TCM.  This month, September, TCM has devoted Tuesdays and Thursdays to "The Black Experience On Film."  The hosts are members of the AAFCA, the African American Critics Association.  Watching has been a monumental joy to me -- because the last time I saw a black host on TCM was trailblazer DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST director Julie Dash in December 2016.

Seeing black critics as guest hosts on TCM this month has been not only refreshing, it's been long overdue.

When I had my VH1 talk show, not only was it extreme fun but it was also a privilege for which I am still grateful.  I got a great review from the New York Times, People Magazine and TV Guide.  I still did not have a broadcast agent.  Agents said they wouldn't know what to do with me.  One said that if I did weather, he could get me local TV news jobs in a heartbeat.  I don't do weather. Here's what I showed to the agents back then.
In 1990, right after my VH1 contract ended, I had a meeting with an agent at a very famous agency in New York City.  I was thrilled and positive I'd be on my way to the next phase of my career that I had planned.  I told the agent that I wanted to do another talk show, or host a smart game show or do supporting roles in good comedies -- like the role Bill Murray did in TOOTSIE.

The agent replied, "But that wasn't a role for a black actor."  By the way, the agent was about as white as winter in Minnesota.  Look at TOOTSIE again.  Bill Murray's character could've been Bill, or a John Leguizamo or a Randall Park (the dad on the ABC sitcom, FRESH OFF THE BOAT).  The roommate role in TOOTSIE didn't just have to be played by a white actor -- but that's how agents thought. And that's what has frustrated we people of color who perform and seek work for a long, long time.

I signed with that agent, then parted company after one year.  I never had a meeting about hosting another talk show.  I had auditions to play either inner city homeboys, prison inmates or thugs.  I left the agent after he submitted me to play a knucklehead thug in 1993's WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S 2.  The sequel's script called for the two black simple-minded crooks to perform a voodoo dance with the Bernie corpse in a Times Square X-rated movie theater men's room using a boombox and a bucket of fried chicken.

I was appalled at the script's images of black men from a white writer.  But to refuse the audition could've labeled me as difficult.  Difficult AND black.  I kept my audition appointment.  I was told by the three white men in the audition -- the writer/director and a couple of others -- to make any kind of choice I wanted when I entered the room to read for the part.

So...I played him like Zero Mostel's high energy, desperate theatrical loser Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS. I gave them Zero Mostel.  The three white men were slack-jawed.  I made a choice without giving them the expected stereotype they wanted to see. Nothing against the actor who did book the part.  I knew I wouldn't get it -- and I was glad I wouldn't.  The thug in the red jacket is the character my ex-agent submitted me to play.  This is the exact audition scene I was given. It's in WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S 2. To see a clip, just click onto the link:

That was my HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE moment in a New York City casting session.  And that is why I am so passionate about diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities in the arts.  To keep things like that from happening to the new generation. Representation matters.

HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE airs Sept. 25th at 8p Eastern on TCM.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Bit of THE BLUE BIRD (1940)

This is the Shirley Temple fantasy movie that could've been called I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD FLOPS.  That's just what it did with critics and moviegoers.  If you're a classic film enthusiast, you probably know that MGM sought to borrow 20th Century Fox's top star, Shirley Temple, to play Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Temple was the right age for Dorothy, as she is in the book.  But Fox would not loan out its star.  Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Temple was a major Hollywood star before she was 10.  She brought in big money for Fox.  Her look, her screen image, truly became the icon for the Hollywood child star.  She acted, she danced, and she sang.  She introduced songs that went on to become standards played and sung by top jazz artists.  But newcomer Judy Garland, although technically a few years too old for the role, had the extraordinary singing voice that Shirley Temple didn't and she, as an actress, had a soulfulness and depth that little Shirley didn't.  Judy Garland became Hollywood's newest teen star with THE WIZARD OF OZ and it started her on her way to becoming a Hollywood legend.  20th Century Fox came up with a Technicolor fantasy for Shirley Temple, one with household pets taking human form and accompany her on a spiritual journey somewhere over the Eastern European rainbow.  THE BLUE BIRD was based on a 1908 play by Maurice Maeterlinck.  Bothersome little Mytyl and her younger brother Tyltyl are peasant kids who live with their peasant parents in the woods.  Mytyl wants to find the Blue Bird of Happiness she tells her mother about.  When she and her brother are asleep, a fairy appears and takes them on a journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness.
This hunk o' celluloid cheese didn't work in 1940.  It didn't work in 1976 when George Cukor directed a remake starring Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson.  The remake is, in so many ways, brilliantly bad.  It demands you watch it with a couple of gay male buddies and pitchers of Margaritas.  I remember reading newspaper reports about behind the scenes difficulties.  The main one being that no one seemed to listen to Cicely Tyson when she kept telling Mr. Cukor that he could not put her in the same lighting he was giving Taylor and Fonda because she was several shades darker than Taylor and Fonda, two Caucasian movie stars.  Cicely, of course, was right.  Cicely Tyson played the cat.

Elizabeth Taylor has four roles in the fantasy.  Her best costume is when she plays Light.  Taylor's first scene is --- are you ready? -- as the peasant Mother.  Elizabeth Taylor as a peasant woman making gruel for her kids.  In lederhosen territory.  That is when you knock back the first Margarita.  She should've gotten an Oscar nomination for that instead of BUTTERFIELD 8.  This film probably marks one of the few times Elizabeth Taylor was ever seen doing any kind of kitchen work in her adult life.
Another scene that requires a Margarita is Elizabeth Taylor as Witch and Ava Gardner as Luxury.  Ava looks like she was glued onto the saddle of the horse she's riding and the expression on her face says "That check better be on my agent's desk tomorrow" coupled with "When the hell is lunch?"
In the 1940 version, there is one sequence that fascinates me.  The fairy takes the two youngster to the Land of Unborn Souls.  They're all waiting for their turns to head to earth and be born.  There's sort of a Grecian temple set design and dozens of white kids in togas are playing, lounging or creating.  This film has an all-white cast.  Shirley goes up to one adolescent fellow who's mixing liquids with his chemistry set.  She tells her that he's inventing anesthetic drugs so people can have broken limbs operated on without pain.  Mytyl (Shirley) enthusiastically replies, "Do hurry and get yourself born."
There's a toddler girl who tries to sneak onto the Ship to Earth but she's politely told yet again that it's not her time yet.  She sneaked onto the ship twice before, was found, and quickly returned to the temple. She's probably Miscarriage.

There's a slim, tall boy leaning again a column and looking forlorn.  He tells Mytyl what he knows about life on Earth.  "There's too much unhappiness...So many are born into slavery...That's what I'm going to fight."

Mytyl (Shirley) cheerfully tells him he should look forward to being born so he can help.  With a grim expression, he predicts "They'll destroy me."

Every time I see that scene in 1940's THE BLUE BIRD, I always feels that it would have had an even stronger emotional punch if the part had been played by a black teen actor.  It's a small but substantial role that could've made a jarring yet accurate social statement, one that definitely would've resonated when looking back on the film come the end of the 1960s, a decade of the turbulent Civil Rights Movement.  And it would've been the best part of the movie.  An African-American teen actor as Studious Boy (played by Gene Reynolds) would have been a bold, strong, dramatic casting decision for that good bit part -- in my opinion.

Here's a taste of THE BLUE BIRD.  I'm going to go watch THE WIZARD OF OZ again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

About EMMYS 2018

There were some golden moments -- one involved a surviving cast member of THE GOLDEN GIRLS -- and the show ended on time.  Unlike the Oscars, the Emmys telecast didn't go over three hours.  However, I do hope that the writers, producers and director all recorded the Emmys show and will watch in real time like we viewers had to do last night.  That way, they can see for themselves why the telecast mostly sucked.  The opening musical number satirizing networks' lack of diversity in shows and casting was pretty ho-hum and eventually unfortunate.  Unfortunate because there were so few winners of color that CBS star James Corden, when he got up to be a presenter, requested the show be called "Emmys So White."
The absolutely terrific Regina King won and Emmy.  So did Thandie Newton.  But, at a certain point in the show, we saw more black people in the In Memoriam package that we did making acceptance speeches.
The hosts were Colin Jost and Michael Che from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.  The Emmys aired on NBC.  Later in the show, Che did a taped comedy feature called "Reparation Emmys."  THAT was funny.  He took an Emmy and presented it to black actors who were overlooked by the TV academy decades ago.  We saw Marla Gibbs, Jimmie Walker, Jaleel White and the inimitable John Witherspoon.  That piece should have opened the show instead of the lame "We Solved It" diversity crisis number.

Betty White made a special guest appearance.  She looked marvelous, a radiant 96.  Henry Winkler was the show's first winner and his Emmy was very well-deserved.  The role of the Southern California acting class teacher on HBO's BARRY is the best one he's had in decades.  The teacher has no idea one of his new students is a hired killer.  The problem with the Emmys was evident during Winkler's acceptance speech.  The actor became a huge TV star on HAPPY DAYS back in the 1970s.  He'd never won an Emmy.  He had about 40 seconds to make an acceptance speech after a much too-long and moderately funny opening monologue by the SNL host couple.  Time should've been whacked off that monologue in rehearsals and allotted to the night's first winner.  Winkler's acceptance speech and the love he got from the audience was a show highlight.

About love … the peak memorable moment of last night's show was true love and the live marriage proposal made by Emmy winner Glenn Weiss during his acceptance speech.  Glenn is pretty much the annual director of the Oscars and the Tony Awards. The audience went wild with applause.  A fabulous unexpected moment.  The girlfriend loved it too. She didn't see it coming either.
I had several fun days working with Glenn Weiss back in the early 90s.  After my contract with VH1 expired, one of the gigs I booked was as host of a relationship game show called BEDROOM BUDDIES, directed by Glenn Weiss.  Think THE NEWLYWED GAME only, on our show, couples didn't have to be married. It's a long, loopy story but I wound up getting that job thanks to Broadway Tony winner and film/TV actress Joanna Gleason.  The show was a 4-week summer replacement late night game show.  The four weeks were a test to see if we'd get picked up for syndication.

We didn't.  Everyone on the crew, except for the show's executive producer/creator, knew that it wouldn't get picked up because it was cheesier than a Wisconsin fondue.  We knew that critics would hate it.  Which they did.  One TV critic wrote "Not since Chernobyl..." They hated the suggestive contest questions about the couples' love lives.  Our game show was a spin-off from one called STUDS which had bachelors looking for love.

Critics hated the show but the experience of working with Glenn Weiss, the writers and the rest of that crew was one of the most fun work experiences I ever had in my career.  I loved every single day.  Our motto was, "Let's do our best, keep a good sense of humor, then take the money and run."

Mazel Tov, Glenn Weiss.  You deserve happiness.

Other than that -- the Emmy comedy bits with Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, two comedy performers I totally dig, all fell flat over and over again.  Will Ferrell....why was he there?  His bit was funny … only to Will Ferrell.

My biggest disappointment with last night's Emmys?  Sandra Oh didn't win an Outstanding Actress award.

We didn't hear any Emmy winner say "It's an honor just to be nominated," nevertheless I'm positive that's how many of them felt.  Oscar winner Sally Field has been on network TV promoting the publication of her memoir, IN PIECES.  I've been lucky enough to interview her three times on TV.  The first piece I ever did that aired nationally was a 6-minute interview of Sally Field when she was promoting her 1981 comedy film, BACK ROADS. She'd won her first Oscar by then.  In 1988, she was a wonderful guest on my prime time VH1 talk show.  When I worked on WNBC local news, I interviewed her when she was promoting 1994's FORREST GUMP.

I have never, ever been nominated for either a local or national Emmy in my entire career.  If I was to hear my name in years to come as an Emmy nominee, I'd probably break out crying and I truly would feel that it's an honor just to be nominated.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Dorothy Dandridge as CARMEN JONES (1954)

This fiery, sexy performance by the late, great Dorothy Dandridge made Hollywood history.  The Best Actress of 1954 Oscar race became one of the most famous in that award's history.  Judy Garland was the favorite to win for her magnificent screen comeback in the first remake of A STAR IS BORN, one that made the unknown performer a singer with a band who gets discovered and discovers the dark side of Hollywood fame while starring in sunny musicals. Garland's main competition was new Hollywood Golden Girl, Grace Kelly, a sophisticated lady who went drab and dramatic in THE COUNTRY GIRL.  Dorothy Dandridge broke through the Hollywood color barrier and became the first black woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress thanks to her work in the musical drama, CARMEN JONES directed by Otto Preminger.  Dorothy Dandridge worked hard at her craft. She was a serious student in classes and truly had star quality.  But Hollywood was restricted back then.  Black actors could move up only so far.  Even the most talented would not get equal opportunities and respect.
Dandridge deserved to be in that Best Actress category.  She burns up the screen with charisma, sex appeal, glamour...and talent.  This story is a modern day take on Bizet's opera CARMEN.  We'd seen the tale of the doomed temptress before and she's a character who seems to work when viewed through different racial lenses.  Rita Hayworth, then at the height of her Hollywood stardom, was Latina and so was her Carmen in the 1948 Technicolor melodrama, THE LOVES OF CARMEN set in 19th century Spain.  Rita Hayworth is at her vivacious best as the lusty gypsy romanced by a young, naïve soldier (played by Glenn Ford.)  Next came Dorothy.
CARMEN JONES is modern day with modern day soldiers and updated original lyrics to Bizet's operatic melodies.  CARMEN JONES has an all-Black cast that includes Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey and Brock Peters.  Harry Belafonte was Dorothy's leading man.

Dandridge could sing but she was not an operatic singer so her singing is dubbed by Marilyn Horne.  Dandridge was a Hollywood veteran by that time.  She, like other Black actresses, had played maids and went uncredited in some roles she did.  You can spot her with her sister in the Marx Brothers comedy, A DAY AT THE RACES (1937).  She's in the "All God's Children Got Rhythm" swing number set in the black folks section of town.  She's an African princess opposite another screen beauty, Gene Tierney, in 1941's SUNDOWN.  Also in 1941, she had a musical number with the Nicholas Brothers in 20th Century Fox's SUN VALLEY SERENADE.
I've written before that, if Hollywood had not been so racially unenlightened, Dorothy Dandridge should have been able to play characters like Lana Turner did -- gorgeous young women who were restless, not content to settle for the traditional married life without having a taste of something better. Maybe a bite of some sweet forbidden fruit just to see how it tastes.  And she should've played the gorgeous young woman at war with herself until she wins the battle and finds self-esteem and independence.  Think of the Lana Turner characters in ZIEGFELD GIRL, JOHNNY EAGER, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.  It would've been great to see Dorothy do those kind of roles.

High praise George Cukor had for Judy Garland's acting skill during production of A STAR IS BORN made me think of Dorothy Dandridge in CARMEN JONES.  Pay attention the next time you see that Otto Preminger musical.  In A STAR IS BORN, Judy Garland introduces the blues song "The Man That Got Away" and it's one of the most dynamic, thrilling numbers in Hollywood movie musical history.  It's a long number. It runs at four and a half minutes.  Garland sings this torch song in one continuous take.  Not a single cut or edit.  She's onscreen in a wide shot for the entire performance.  Cukor said that it takes a strong actress to carry a scene that long without a cut.  Garland was a sensational, soul-touching singer and a strong actress.  Also, she didn't lip sync.  She sang along to her playback full out and often topped it in volume.

Dandridge was the third woman in Hollywood history to be nominated for an Oscar.  The first was Hattie McDaniel for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.  Hattie won for Best Supporting Actress.  Singer/actress Ethel Waters was nominated in the same category for the 1949 race drama, PINKY.  Both actresses were hefty women cast as domestics, uneducated but wise women, outfitted in sexless and plain dresses.  In Dandridge's Carmen, we see a talented woman slapping white Hollywood in the face with the realization that a black actress can be just as sexy and alluring as a Rita Hayworth, a Lana Turner and an Ava Gardner.  Her Carmen is not only sexy, she's smart.  There's an intelligence in Dandridge's performance that's always at play.  As she teases and tempts the soldiers on the base, we see that her Carmen is a shrewd captain in the Battle of the Sexes.  She constantly advances.  She understands the politics of sex.  For her, sex is not just pleasure. It's also power.  She's honest about her sexuality and realizes that it may be the sole currency a black woman alone has in life.  She may not know where she's going, but she's determined to chart her own course.  In this performance, Dorothy Dandridge challenged previous images of black women presented onscreen by white Hollywood.  Within her work and within the Hollywood studio system, for the time she was given, she was a rebel.

Dorothy Dandridge, whose career was painfully crippled after her groundbreaking Oscar nomination because of her race, was also a strong actress.  Watch her musical numbers.  Maybe because this project sported an all-Black cast, it didn't get the budget the "usual" musicals got.  For someone who was a screen beauty, there's never a close-up glamour shot in any of Dandridge's numbers, not like you'd traditionally see in movie musical songs being done by an Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour, Doris Day or Ava Gardner and Judy Garland at MGM.  Although her talents were under-utilized at MGM because of her race, singer Lena Horne did get glamorous close-ups in her musical numbers.  Dandridge in CARMEN JONES is in shots for a long time singing and -- like Garland belting out "The Man That Got Away" -- she can hold the scene without a cut or edit.
She and Judy Garland both lost the Oscar.  Grace Kelly won for THE COUNTRY GIRL.

Dorothy Dandridge reminded people of her impressive acting talent, her true movie star glamour and undeniable screen charisma in another Otto Preminger musical drama, 1959's PORGY AND BESS co-starring Sidney Poitier.  It was her next Hollywood leading lady script offer for a film shot in Hollywood after her 1954 breakthrough performance.  1954 to 1959.  And it was her last film role. Racism robbed us of more great work from the gifted star Lena Horne lovingly called "our Marilyn Monroe."

CARMEN JONES airs on cable's TCM (Turner Classic Movies) at 8p Eastern on Tuesday, September 18th.  CARMEN JONES airs as part of TCM's month-long salute to the Black Experience On Film.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

About Claudette Colbert

The Best Actress Oscar winner, a delicious French-American dish of sophistication, wit and talent, was born on this day in history.  She won her Best Actress Oscar for Frank Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, often called the Granddaddy of Screwball Comedies.  Her co-star, Clark Gable, took the Oscar for Best Actor.  Capra won for Best Director and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1934.  If IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is the Granddaddy of Screwball Comedies then Claudette Colbert was the original runaway bride.  She'd be followed by future actresses in comedies who also played runaway brides -- actresses from Ginger Rogers to Sally Field and Julia Roberts.
That film was made for Columbia Pictures.  But from the very early 1930s through the 1940s, Claudette Colbert established herself as one of the most glamorous and flexible film actresses at Paramount.  For that studio, she was an art deco CLEOPATRA in De Mille's historical 1934 epic, she was the love interest opposite Broadway's George M. Cohan in his only major studio release as a leading man. Paramount's 1932 comedy, THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT, made decades before Kevin Kline played DAVE, was a comedy about an entertainer who looks exactly like the President of the United States and is called into action to pretend he's the president. Colbert and Fred MacMurray tried to dodge the Salem Witch Hunts in 1937's MAID OF SALEM, she's an intrepid lady newspaper reporter dodging bullets in war-torn Spain with Ray Milland in 1940's ARISE, MY LOVE and she's the American chorus girl/singer stranded and broke in Paris in the fabulous and under-appreciated 1939 comedy gem, MIDNIGHT, a hip twist on the Cinderella tale.  She's very good as the military nurse doing her duty overseas right after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1943's SO PROUDLY WE HAIL, a movie about American women in uniform.
I could add several others but I cannot leave out another one of her comedy peaks.  It's one of my favorites.  She's terrific with Joel McCrea in the 1942 Preston Sturges classic, THE PALM BEACH STORY.

She had more hits and got more good reviews going into the 1950s.  Classic film devotees know that Colbert was originally slated to play Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 classic, ALL ABOUT EVE.  She reportedly sprained her back and had to withdraw from the project.  Bette Davis, who was in a career lull at the time, was sent the script -- and the rest is film history.  Davis worked under contract to Warner Bros. for about 16 years and won two Best Actress Oscars during her time at that studio.  However, when the screen legend died, all the obits on TV news programs began with a clip of Bette Davis in Fox's ALL ABOUT EVE as the Broadway diva ordering her party guests to "Fasten your's going to be a bumpy night."
ALL ABOUT EVE was a 20th Century Fox production.  I wanted to write a few quick notes about Claudette Colbert and that film.  It broke her heart to lose the Margo Channing role.  In 1950, moviegoers saw Claudette Colbert in a WW2 drama based on a true life story.  THREE CAME HOME was a victory for her.  It has one of Colbert's best dramatic outings.  It's about female prisoners of war in the Pacific.
In styling and attitude and carriage, Claudette Colbert and Bette Davis were vastly different Hollywood stars.  In the 1930s, she was Cleopatra.  In the 1930s, Bette Davis was Queen Elizabeth.  Claudette Colbert was a master at making a beer seem like a champagne cocktail the way she played comedies for Capra, Lubitsch, Capra, Mitchell Leisen and Preston Sturges.  I read articles by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the man who won Oscars for directing and writing ALL ABOUT EVE, that there would have been "fire and ice" approaches to playing Margo from those two stars.  Bette gave us the fire. He added that some folks incorrectly assumed Davis based her Margo on Broadway legend Tallulah Bankhead.  One of Bankhead's greatest Broadway successes was in THE LITTLE FOXES.  Davis did Tallulah's lead role in the film version.  Tallulah played Margo Channing in an abbreviated 1952 radio version of ALL ABOUT EVE.

Mankiewicz stated that, had Claudette Colbert played Margo, folks would've assumed she was imitating Ilka Chase.  Chase was also a successful Broadway actress.  She originated the Sylvia Fowler role on Broadway in THE WOMEN, the role that Rosalind Russell did in the film version and made memorable with own special energy and comedy style.

Look at ALL ABOUT EVE again.  Anne Baxter, as the duplicitous Eve, is out to replicate her idol, Broadway's great Margo Channing.  She weasels her way into her kind idol's life and then sets out to replace her on Broadway and in the bedroom.  As the wonderful Thelma Ritter as Margo's friend/housekeeper Birdie warns:  ".... she's studying you, like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints.  How you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep."

With that said, look at how Anne Baxter is styled compared to how Bette Davis looks as Margo.  Does Baxter look like a younger copy of Davis' Margo?  Or does Baxter, in the way she's styled, resemble more a Claudette Colbert type? This is nothing against the performances, it's just a note on the look.  Maybe Baxter's look was already set when the crew thought Colbert was cast --- then the injury took her out and Davis was a last-minute replacement.  A true duplicate of the Bette Davis as Margo would've been more of a 1940s Lizabeth Scott or Lauren Bacall, in my opinion.  What do you think?
Now think about the end of ALL ABOUT EVE with that final shot.  Karma will bite Eve Harrington in the backside via an upstart ingenue who calls herself "Phoebe" and cons her way into Eve Harrington's hotel room.  If Claudette Colbert had played Margo, Anne Baxter's look would have been a duplicate -- and Phoebe's look would have been a triplicate.

As for Ilka Chase … both Hollywood stars worked with her.  Ilka Chase played the caring, generous cousin to Bette Davis' Charlotte Vale character in NOW, VOYAGER.  Ilka Chase and Claudette Colbert played sisters in the Paramount's 1943 romantic comedy NO TIME FOR LOVE co-starring Fred MacMurray.

Claudette Colbert's last onscreen hit performance was delivered in a made-for-TV film.  She landed the highly coveted role in the 1987 drama, THE TWO MRS. GRENVILLES.  Yes, 1987.  Based on a Dominick Dunne best-seller, she's the wealthy mother of the chorus girl who married and -- she believes -- murdered her son.  Ann-Margret played the detestable daughter-in-law.  THE TWO MRS. GRENVILLES is available on Warner Archive DVD.

From the Best Actress of 1934 Oscar win to a hit NBC TV mini-series in 1987 that brought her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.  What a long and successful she had.  Claudette Colbert died in 1996 at age 92.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Jim Carrey is KIDDING

The comedian/actor has received high praise for his new performance that premieres tonight.  He plays a beloved children's TV show host -- like Mister Rogers -- whose life is hit with some dark, devastating events.  The off-camera life of the man famously known as Mr. Pickles is falling apart.  Entertainment Weekly printed that "Jim Carrey does his best work in years in dramedy KIDDING."
The first half-hour of this ten- episode drama/comedy airs tonight.  Six of the ten episodes were directed by Michel Gondry.  He's the man who drew a strong performance out of Carrey in the 2004 film ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.  KIDDING airs on Showtime.
Rolling Stone wrote "Jim Carrey makes a triumphant return to TV with a moving, lived-in performance..."  Remember that Carrey was a cast regular on the IN LIVING COLOR comedy sketch series on TV back in the 1990s.  The Hollywood Reporter said "Carrey is superb as a man who, like Fred Rogers himself, really is that nice on and off set."
I want to see KIDDING because I'm always fascinated to see comedians flip the coin of their image, their brand persona, and play the dramatic side of the story.  Way back when I gave in to a dear friend's constant urging and started this blog, one of my early pieces was about my wonderful encounter with a then-unknown Jim Carrey.  This was when I new to New York City television and had just started my two years of work on WPIX TV/Channel 11.  We had a weekday local magazine show.  On it, I did occasional celebrity interviews.  Lauren Hutton was scheduled.  I'd interviewed her during my previous job and she remembered me when I went to greet her in the greenroom.  She pulled me aside and ask for a small favor before we started taping.  There was a guy in her new comedy, ONCE BITTEN, and she felt he was meant for stardom.  He'd tagged along with her for a couple of her press appointments.  She asked if he could go on with her for the interview so viewers could be introduced to him.  The guy was Jim Carrey.  This was a supremely gracious gesture from the woman who was the star of the film.

I had no problem with adding this unknown to the interview segment.  Jim Carrey went on with Lauren Hutton...and killed.  Warm, quick-witted, a charismatic dude with elastic facial muscles.  The camera guys were laughing.  When you break up the camera crew, you've struck gold.  This funny, fresh-faced, polite new actor had won us over -- well, just about all of us.  Our stuffy producer remarked, "He's silly.  He'll never get anyplace."  Five years later, he debuted on a new Fox TV comedy series called IN LIVING COLOR.

We were so grateful to Lauren Hutton that day at WPIX TV.  Few folks recall her 1985 vampire comedy, ONCE BITTEN.  But ten years later, Jim Carrey would be one of the biggest movie comedy stars in Hollywood.  Millions of moviegoers remember 1994's box office blockbusters ACE VENTURA, THE MASK and DUMB AND DUMBER followed by THE CABLE GUY and LIAR LIAR.

When Carrey goes dramatic, he's extremely effective.  His work in 1998's prescient film, THE TRUMAN SHOW, was one of my favorite performances in a film of that year.  (If you had predicted in 1998 that we'd one day have a president who was a former reality TV show host with no previous political experience, we'd have doubled over laughing.  Watch THE TRUMAN SHOW now and think of America's current state.)

Early in his career, Jim Carrey showed his ease and skill with dramatic material.  Did you ever see the 1992 TV movie called DOING TIME ON MAPLE DRIVE?  We see the dysfunctions, heartbreaks, secrets and lies of an upscale white family.  One son drinks, another attempts suicide because he's a closeted gay.  Carrey played the son with the drinking problem.  He delivered a stand-out performance.

Early in 2009, Sundance premiered a new Jim Carrey film.  Based on a true story, it took a poke at the attitude of the George W. Bush administration.  I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS has a bold, provocative, funny and praiseworthy performance from Carrey.  But the film seemed to have been shelved.  Odd, considering the tremendous and profitable movie stardom Carrey had achieved.  Two years later, Ewan McGregor -- Carrey's co-star in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS -- was on GOOD MORNING AMERICA promoting another project and he was asked when his film with Carrey was going to be released nationwide.  McGregor didn't know.

I saw it on DVD.  I can't recall it playing in any New York City theaters and I can't recall any big promotion for it.  I saw it on cable a couple of times a few months ago.  I watched it a couple of times because I'm that impressed with it.  Especially Carrey's commitment to his character.

I think the film was withheld because, like with the cop buddy/crime thriller KISS KISS BANG BANG with Val Kilmer as a gay L.A. detective, the lead male character is a tough, street smart, openly gay man who is no one's victim.  Carrey plays a Virginia Beach cop and family man leading a pretty traditional life -- except when he realizes that he's gay.  He's also discovered something about his childhood.  A lie that made him an outsider and put a hole in his heart.  Well, he comes out of the closet, gets a divorce, relocates to Miami and gets a boyfriend.  Then comes another realization --being gay is expensive.  The former cop becomes a con man to keep his boyfriend looking good and to keep sending money to the ex-wife and their little girl.  By the way, he and the sweet ex-wife remained friends and speak often on the phone.

He winds up in prison, where he runs another racket, and falls in love with a fellow inmate named Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).  What I love about Carrey's performance is that he took elements of what his fan base loved in his comedy films such as LIAR LIAR and showed the dramatic side of the antics, the side driven by heartbreak.  It's a sexually frank, unpredictable role and Carrey has definite chemistry with the gifted, versatile Ewan McGregor.  I never thought I'd swoon at a men's prison cell scene with Johnny Mathis singing "Chances Are" being played as background music.
I think Jim Carrey as an assertive, romantic top who schemes, steals and breaks out of prison for the man he loves unnerved some white hetero males in Hollywood marketing departments.  I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS shows some good, solid acting work from Jim Carrey.  You'll laugh, but he plays it all seriously which is the way to play it in this vehicle.  He never sacrifices the wounded humanity of the character to insert some "Jim Carrey" verbal or physical sight gags.

I'm eager to see him exercise his elastic dramatic muscles in KIDDING.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Black Film Critics Come to TCM

September is an overdue and breakthrough month on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  Black film critics will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays to present "The Black Experience On Film."  I talk about this in my current podcast episode.  I explain why this TCM special event is overdue by reminding you of the 1980s when NBC, CBS and ABC network morning shows each had a weekly film critic.  Siskel & Ebert gave us film reviews on a new syndicated show called AT THE MOVIES. Pairs of critics replaced them on SNEAK PREVIEWS. Today, the CBS MORNING SHOW has film critic David Edelstein.  What do all those critics have in common?  All white males.  Did TV executives who book and hire think black film critics didn't exist?  Let's just say that opportunities were not and have not been equal, so much so that Rotten Tomatoes made recent New York Times news with the announcement that it added 200 critics to help repair its lack of race/gender inclusion.  Rotten Tomatoes was 82% white male. It's time to let diversity march in.
This month, TCM's "Black Experience On Film" includes airings of A SOLDIER'S STORY (1984) and A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961), two films based on hit plays.
In the podcast, I'll tell you about the wall director Norman Jewison had to punch through to get his film, a story with a predominantly black cast, made.  I'll tell you how black playwright Lorraine Hansberry was groundbreaking on Broadway and with the Hollywood studio adaptation of her hit play.  Members of her original Broadway cast -- Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Lou Gossett. Jr., Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands -- recreated their roles in the screen version.

Members of the AAFCA, the African American Film Critics Association, will be on TCM for the "Black Experience On Film" nights.  These are critics you rarely see on national television.  In fact, this month may mark the first time many TV viewers see black female film critics.  The Los Angeles Times is the only outlet I can think of that reports on what awards the African American Film Critics Association gives out annually.  And don't think that the AAFCA only honors black actors.  It gave acting awards to JK Simmons for WHIPLASH (he later won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of 2014) and Frances McDormand for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (she later won the Oscar for Best Actress of 2017).

The one awkward programming element I see in this special event is that the TCM "Black Experience On Film" spotlight premieres on Sept. 4th, hours after the TCM daytime airing of HOLIDAY INN, a major 1942 Paramount musical with several characters in a blackface production number saluting Abraham Lincoln ("...who was it set the darkies free? Abraham! Abraham!") and sung by Bing Crosby. In blackface. HOLIDAY INN should've been scheduled for another day.

Films are my passion.  I took Film Journalism courses at Marquette University. After graduation, I was the first black film critic seen on Milwaukee TV.  I did that for four years, plus celebrity interviews. I got hired away by New York City in 1985.  I had my own talk show on VH1.  That terrific opportunity was in the late 80s. In 1992, I started years of work on local and network TV news shows in New York City.

From 1992 to 2006, white broadcast executives frequently asked me "Do you know anything about movies?" and "Have you ever done any entertainment news pieces?" when I pushed for auditions and equal opportunities.  It was always frustrating to feel that my skills and history had been overlooked. That's why I keep pushing for race/gender diversity and inclusion.  I explain more in the podcast episode.  Also, I do feel that we black TCM fans have been starved for representations of ourselves in its host segments over the last couple of years. We have the knowledge and interest to participate in the general classic film conversation.

Please watch members of the African American Film Critics Association on TCM this month.  It is important that they're seen. Now here's some of my stuff to help underline points I make in the podcast.  I'll start with clips from my VH1 host years.

Meryl Streep told me how seeing Liza Minnelli in a 1977 Broadway musical directed by Martin Scorcese changed her approach to acting.

VH1 flew me to London to interview Paul McCartney.

Here are samples of my network and local TV program work from the 1990s to 2000.

To hear my podcast, just go here and scroll down to "Fall Colors on Turner Classic Movies":

Remember to check out the Lorraine Hansberry documentary that premiered on the PBS American Masters program early this year.  Look for it online.  It's called LORRAINE HANSBERRY: SIGHTED EYES/FEELING HEART.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Check Out Billy Wilder's AVANTI! (1972)

Hollywood had changed. Society had changed. The production codes and censorship that limited movie storytelling when Billy Wilder started his directorial career at Paramount Pictures were gone.  In the 1970s, his films didn't meet with the stunning critical and award-winning success of his 1950 to 1960 period (SUNSET BOULEVARD to THE APARTMENT), but his 1970s period still gave us some Wilder work that, I feel, is worth watching.  Today, I watched Billy Wilder's AVANTI!  This is definitely a romantic comedy that Wilder could not have made back in the 1950s.  We see bare breasts and Jack Lemmon's bare bottom.  A comedy classic? No.  A very good and entertaining comedy?  Yes.  This current age of Hollywood movies seems to be one that has lost its way in the art of making romantic comedies that would be great date movies.  AVANTI! has Wilder touches that I love, touches that put a big smile on my face.  The movie stars Juliet Mills and Jack Lemmon.
"I'm short, fat and unattractive."  That's the way British Pamela Piggott describes herself during a phone call in Italy.  She may very well be to some.  However, American businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr., also in Italy, is falling in love with her.
There can be a touch of cynicism in Billy Wilder's world -- look at how he feels about the insurance business in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE APARTMENT and THE FORTUNE COOKIE.  He gave us the first "media circus" of journalism in ACE IN THE HOLE.  But there's also his sly, subversive and sophisticated humanity.  That's what I love most.  He sees the emotional high price Hollywood puts on women to maintain youth and beauty.  Look at SUNSET BOULEVARD and 1978's FEDORA.  For all its touting principles of Christianity, Wilder was condemned by the Catholic Church for showing that even a hooker is worthy of true love and possibly marriage.  Look at his KISS ME, STUPID and IRMA LA DOUCE.  In THE APARTMENT, he gave us a young woman who attempts suicide at Christmastime because of her humiliating affair with a married man.  Wilder makes us see that she's one of the most lovable, endearing characters in a 1960 movie. We root for her to have a happy ending.  And, to use a modern term, is there any character more "sexually fluid" than the sweet, screwball millionaire played by Joe E. Brown in SOME LIKE IT HOT?  Wilder had an affection for society's kind-hearted outsiders and misfits.

I won't go into detail about all the plot of AVANTI! I will give you the basics.  Lemmon plays the American businessman who has to travel to Naples to claim his Baltimore millionaire father's body.  Dad died in a car accident during a month-long vacation.  Come to find out, the woman who died with him in the accident was his long-time mistress.  Her daughter, played by Juliet Mills, is in Italy to claim her mother's body.

Pamela, the totally charming daughter, has had an unhappy love affair. She reveals to strait-laced Wendell that she tried to kill over-eating.

Pamela has a healthy appetite.  She eats with pleasure and without.  She is very comfortable in her own skin.  So comfortable that she goes skinny-dipping in Italy, a freedom that rattles Wendell.

I saw this movie when I was just starting college.  By then, I was already a hardcore Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon fan.  I thought that I was too young, too unsophisticated in cinema art to see what some critics were seeing because they described Pamela as overweight.  I saw absolutely nothing overweight about Juliet Mills.  She looked just fine to me.  Today, I think perhaps that's a point Wilder was making.  In the American male gaze, Pamela is seen as being 20 lbs. overweight.  To the Italian males, she's sexy and they pursue her while she's eating a few ice cream cones.

Especially in close-ups, Wilder shoots the Juliet Mills Pamela character as if she's a bouquet of lovely spring flowers.  This is 1972.  Fast forward a few decades and think of a plump female lead character like Renee Zellweger's BRIDGET JONES of 2001, 2004 and 2016.  In Billy Wilder's AVANTI!, the "short, fat" Pamela is never portrayed as physically and socially awkward.  Neither her full figure nor any article of her clothing is the sight gag.  There's no fat-shaming in Wilder's direction. Pamela -- like her dear, late mother -- will become the object of affection.  In 2018, I found this female character and image refreshing.  Click onto this link to see a trailer.

If you watch it, there's an in-joke of sorts that made me chuckle.  The lead role in COOL HAND LUKE was offered to Jack Lemmon.  Lemmon didn't think he was right for the role of Luke but the script was so good, that he decided to produce the film, starring Paul Newman, through his production company.  I visited Chris Lemmon, the actor's son, at his home in Connecticut. He gave me that info on his dad being offered the lead role in that 1967 hit film.  In AVANTI, while standing up in a bathtub, Jack Lemmon does a twist on COOL HAND LUKE's most famous movie line.

There are revelations and complications.  About ten minutes could have been chopped off one of the subplots but the excess doesn't feel heavy and repetitive like in some modern comedies starring Jason Segel such as THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL.  I think that's because Billy Wilder had the gift of adding lively, funny supporting and bit players in his films.  Here, one stand-out in that category is Clive Revill is Carlo Carlucci, the hotel director.

Watching Jack Lemmon at work with Billy Wilder material, seeing his conservative and uptight American character slowly shed his inhibitions and open his heart to a most unlikely romance with a woman who doesn't fit into the American image of beauty is a beautiful thing.  Check out AVANTI!  There are laughs and some lovely moments in it.  Afterwards, have a nice meal.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...